By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks sit in second place in the Eastern Conference at 32-18. They trail the Heat by four games in the loss column for first place and have a healthy three-game lead in the loss column over the third-place Pacers.
They lead the Atlantic Division and are on pace for 52-53 wins. Unless Derrick Rose comes back and looks something like his old self, I like the Knicks in a seven-game series against the Pacers or Bulls (who can’t score enough), the Nets (who are inconsistent at best) and the Celtics sans Rajon Rondo. Any of those teams would challenge the Knicks in a playoff series and would have a pretty good chance of beating them, but I’ll take the Knicks when push comes to shove.
Now the bad news: The Heat are no longer in the Knicks’ conversation, even though they match up well with them. If the Knicks were in the Western Conference, I’d rate them as the fifth-best team behind the top four teams. Yes, that means I would take the Grizzlies against them in a playoff series even after the Rudy Gay trade. The Knicks have a ton of problems, but most of them are fixable. They need to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror over the All-Star break and accept some hard truths.
1) The Knicks started the season 8-1, but since then they are only a 24-17 team. In their last 41 games, half a season’s worth, they are ranked 20th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Historically, teams ranked that low defensively simply do not advance to the NBA Finals, and rarely do they get to the conference finals. All those rankings, as well as the Knicks’ overall rankings, by the way, are a lot worse than they were under Mike D’Antoni last season. The Knicks are not in any way better defensively than they were last season. They are much worse. It’s a false narrative that their record has anything to do with improved defense this season.
We’ve seen the Knicks play good defense in brief stretches, but never consistently. Some of it is scheme with Mike Woodson’s insistence on switching, but much of it comes down to effort. This came from Tyson Chandler to his teammates, via Alan Hahn on Twitter:
“You’re not going to have too many times in your career where you can say you’ve got a legitimate shot to go after a championship. I only had it one time in my career and that is the year we won. This year we got a shot, so when we come back, we’ve got to let everybody understand that. You don’t want to pass up an opportunity like this in your career, because you’ll always look back and wish you could have done things different. As athletes, that’s the worst thing you could ever have: regret.”
Chandler should first look in the mirror, as his effort defensively has been off and on. But his larger points stands: The Knicks need to decide whether or not they want to commit to winning a title.
If they do, it will require a lot more hard work on defense. It means that Raymond Felton has to fight over that screen a little harder. Amar’e Stoudemire and Chandler need to do a better job showing on the high screen-and-roll to give Felton a chance to get back in front of his man. Carmelo Anthony has to re-engage on defense like he did the first couple weeks of the season. Iman Shumpert has to continue to get his legs back. Only switch when you have to. Don’t lazily double-team and then not rotate. The Knicks need to keep guards out of the paint. This doesn’t just fall on Felton, but he is a decent part of it. If these things don’t happen, the Knicks aren’t winning anything this year — period.
The good news is that in the last month (14 games), the Knicks have improved significantly defensively, ranking 12th in the league in points per possession. Some of that has to do with weaker competition, but it’s still worth nothing. The inconsistency is still there, however, and that has to vanish. A commitment to defense for four quarters every night, and nothing short of that, is what wins NBA titles. Earlier in the year, the Knicks were especially good at defense in the fourth quarter, but that trend has faded too (ranked just 14th in the league in their last 41 games). The Clippers’ 31-point fourth quarter is the symptom of a larger trend.
Will the Knicks put forth the effort and focus necessary to become the defensive team that they have to be to win a title? The next 32 games will tell that story.
2) Unlike No. 1, I don’t have the advanced stats to back this up, but the Knicks are not going to win anything if they continue their transformation into a “give it to Melo so he can make a play” offense. Even if he is a willing passer, his teammates will be less likely to hit shots since they aren’t involved in the game. The Knicks’ offense was at its best early in the season when Woodson was using creative sets to create open shots that came off of ball movement.
Once Felton got hurt, the Knicks began to degenerate into a lot of isolation play for Anthony. Though it has gotten better since Felton’s return, the Knicks’ offense often reverts to stagnancy, especially late in games. Whether it is Anthony or J.R. Smith, they are far more effective when catching and shooting or making quick decisions off of ball movement. Asking either player to go one-on-one on the other team’s top defender with help defense set behind them is a recipe for a low-percentage shot. Anthony is so talented that he can still score sometimes, but it is way too hard for him. If I see one more contested step-back jumper from Smith, my head is going to explode. There’s a reason why his shooting percentage has dropped like a stone.
This lands firmly on Woodson, who needs to make sure that the team gets back to the ball movement and creative play calling that worked so well early in the season. Anthony shot 47 percent the first two months of the season. Since? 42 percent. It’s because they are asking him to work in way too many one-on-one situations. This is not a shot at Anthony. He is a scorer and is one of the top three in the league in that regard. It’s on Woodson to put him in the best position to succeed.
Anthony can beat guys one-on-one, but it should be a last resort and not a strategy. Teams have noticed this trend, and are now single-covering Anthony and preventing the Knicks from finding open shots off of ball movement. They are quite happy with him shooting 25-30 times and scoring 40 points. They aren’t even bad shots much of the time, but taking that many hurts the team. It’s a bad formula for the Knicks to win ballgames.
This is an easy fix for Woodson. Do it, or be knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.
3) Not only is the Knicks’ starting lineup a problem — the team is playing poorly in both the first and third quarters — but the second unit is starting to show warts. When Stoudemire and Steve Novak are on the floor together, teams have two weak defenders to target. If Jason Kidd is out there with them, forget about it. The Knicks might as well just drop back into a zone or wave a white flag of surrender on that end of the floor. When Chandler is not on the floor the Knicks struggle defensively. Perhaps the return of Marcus Camby or Rasheed Wallace can fix that, but both of those players have chronic foot conditions. Good luck.
Woodson might be able to fix both the starting and second-unit problems by making a simple swap. If Shumpert is on the floor with the second group, he adds much-needed athleticism, and his movement towards the basket and in transitions might open up some Novak three-point looks. He’ll also help shore up a shaky perimeter defense.
The answer of who you put into the starting lineup is a tougher one. I still like Anthony starting at the four, so I would slide in Smith at the three. With Stoudemire as a real offensive go-to guy with the second unit, you can afford to make Smith a starter.
His spot-up shooting will help spread the floor, and his defensive prowess will help take the pressure off of Kidd and Anthony. He will also be more of a catch-and-shoot player in this lineup, where he is at his best. I realize that Woodson likes Smith off the bench, but Stoudemire has taken his job as the No. 1 scorer with the second unit, and Smith plays extremely well with Felton, Chandler, Kidd and Anthony (the Knicks’ best lineup).
Oh yeah, and Smith for the Sixth Man of the Year Award or an All-Star nod is a borderline joke at this point. The media still talks about it, but don’t believe it. Since December 1 he is shooting under 39 percent. Time for a shakeup! It’s another easy fix, Woodson. Make it.
4) Kidd is not broken. He is simply in a shooting slump. Did people really expect him to have the best shooting year of his career at age 39? He’ll bounce back eventually. He can’t guard quick guards, true, but that’s been the case since the beginning of the season. The lack of ball movement is also limiting his chances.
5) The same thing can be said for Novak. His three-point percentage is only 2.5 percent lower than it was last season. His effectiveness is almost completely dependent on how the rest of the team is playing. Is there is good ball movement or the team runs in the transition he will get open looks. If they play iso-ball, he will not.
6) You can’t depend on Wallace or Camby, and if that means the Knicks eventually have to go after a guy like Kenyon Martin, so be it. Someone with a defensive presence must back up Chandler.
The Knicks can still win an NBA championship if they make these adjustments. They CAN beat the Heat.
Will they? Let’s see if the players and coach do what’s necessary to do it.
– I’m excited for All-Star weekend, and I like James White’s and Novak’s chances on Saturday night at the dunk and three-point contests, respectively. I want to see White do something special. As for Novak, maybe the shootout can help him get on a hot shooting streak.
– Anthony better rest his arm if it’s a problem. The season is far more important than an All-Star game. If he is dealing with an injury in the second half of the season, the Knicks are in trouble.
So the first half of the season is in the books. How far do you think the Knicks will make it when it’s all said and done? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…